Best Albums of 2012

2012 may or may not have been a good year for music, but it certainly wasn’t a good year for my music reviews. I covered only 55 albums, and just 21 of them were released this year. (And 17 of those 21 were reviewed this month in a frantic attempt not to let the year slip by completely.)

This makes me glad for the precedent I set last year, in which I chose my best five albums of that year, as well as five older ones that I’d finally reviewed. I spent much of 2012 catching up on a backlog, and I’m obviously going into the new year with a lot of this year’s gems still undiscovered.

I was tempted to stick to last year’s format exactly, but I’m going to cut my count down to three in each category. While there were many good albums among the ones I reviewed, there are only a few that I’d actually be confident defending on a “year’s best” list. I’d still stand up for all the ones I listed last year, and I shouldn’t confuse things this time by including ones that are merely “very good” in a year-end wrap-up. My selections may be incomplete, but at least I expect that I will look back on them at this time next year and still feel that they deserved this.

1

Tempest cover

Bob Dylan – Tempest


Though it’s still relatively new, it’s becoming more obvious that this is the highlight of Dylan’s later years. In fact, it already feels classic: Mix it into a collection of recordings from any time in the past century, and this could not only be accepted as their contemporary, but it would stand out as some of the best of that era.

2

Theatre Is Evil cover

Amanda Palmer and The Grand Theft Orchestra – Theatre Is Evil

This album is the most excitingly new-sounding one on the list, and it was a difficult decision not to put it first. I finally accepted that there was no shame for Palmer to come in second to an especially good album from one of the best songwriters of the past century.

The fact that I call Theatre Is Evil “new” is probably the best explanation of its place on this list. An amalgamation of 1980’s goth, glam, and synth influences, it’s all due to the clarity of Palmer’s vision and the strength of her personality that this amalgamation ends up feeling fresh and original.

 

3

Trancendental Youth cover

The Mountain Goats – Trancendental Youth

Singer-songwriter John Darnielle celebrates his son’s birth not with a collection of sappy ballads, but with an honest look at the pain of growing up. Reading between the lines, it becomes a powerful testament to the value of life and survival. Musically, nothing sounds too different from other recent Mountain Goats work, but this is one of those situations where the pieces all fit together perfectly.

 

Many of my reviews from the past month can be understood as a desperate search for more albums to put on this list. I had high hopes for many of them, and had even heard several listed as other peoples’ favorites from 2012. Most of those (though not all) got recommendations from me. They were good. They just didn’t strike me as “best of” material. And ironically, I devoted so much of my efforts toward the big buzz bands and my go-to favorite artists that I just didn’t have time to search out the new unexpected gems. Hopefully next year I’ll catch up on that.

If I do, you’ll see my favorites pop up in a future list. This year, all my pre-2012 standouts would have been eligible for the best-of-2011 list had I found them in time:

1

Wild Flag cover

Wild Flag – Wild Flag

The term “supergroup” is usually derogatory, because it implies that the members are resting on their laurels. Maybe that’s why no one uses that word for this team of indie rockers from the early 2000s. Rather than looking back, Carrie Brownstein and company are building on their old strengths to create modern rock. Skilled and flexible, there is no indication that these musicians will be limited by their past successes.

 

2

Wake Up Sinners cover

The Dirt Daubers – Wake Up Sinners

You don’t hear much about the neo-traditional country movement anymore, but the husband-wife team of J.D. and Jessica Wilkes have gone one better: The Dirt Daubers are a loving recreation not of the olden days’ staid, clean-cut performances, but of the rip-roaring house parties that a wild-but-God-fearing family might throw after catching up on their chores. Both tearing through original songs and bringing new life to time-worn classics, Wake Up Sinners is the honest tribute to the “Real South” that Wilkes has been championing his entire career.

 

3

Carrying Lightning cover

Amanda Shires – Carrying Lightning

If you know anyone rotting their mind with mainstream pop-country, Amanda Shires might be the perfect antidote. Gentle, poetic songs with a worldview halfway between “artsy college girl” and “practical farm-girl”, these is easily accessible with none of the divisive elements of underground country. But it’s soulful and honest, without the contrivances that plague your mainstream friend’s selections. Finally, it’s something you can both agree on.

 

It’s a short list, but I like what’s on it. Also, it’s surprisingly even: My six top albums included two country, two rock, and two folk-pop. Three-and-a-half were female-fronted (with The Dirt Daubers split), and this year’s picks were largely established artists while my older ones were new talents.

Happy New Year, and let’s all look forward to what 2013 has to offer!

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